Mythopoeic

“On Saturday 19 September 1931 [C.S.] Lewis invited two friends to dine with him in Magdalen.  One was [J.R.R.] Tolkien.  The other was Hugo Dyson…

…after they had dined, Lewis took his guests on a walk through the Magdalen grounds.  They strolled along Addison’s Walk (the path which runs beside several streams of the River Cherwell) and here they began to discuss metaphor and myth.

Lewis had never underestimated the power of myth.  Far from it, for one of his earliest loves had been the Norse myth of the dying god Balder…  But he still did not believe in the myths that delighted him.  Beautiful and moving thought such stories might be, they were (he said) ultimately untrue.  As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are ‘lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed in silver.’

No, said Tolkien.  They are not lies.

Just then (Lewis afterward recalled) there was ‘a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.  We held our breath.’

When Tolkien resumed, he took his arguement from the very thing that they were watching.

You look at trees, he said, and call them ‘trees,’ and probably you do not think twice about the word.  You call a star a ‘star,’ and think nothing more of it…  But the first men to talk of ‘trees’ and ‘stars’ saw things very differently.  To them, the world was alive with mythological beings.  They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music…

…man is not ultimately a liar [Tolkien said].  He may pervert his thoughts into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideals.  Lewis agreed: he had, indeed, accepted something like this notion for many years.  Therefore, Tolkien continued, not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth.  In making a myth, in practicing ‘mythopoeia’ and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a storyteller…is actually fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light.  Pagan myths are therefore never just ‘lies:’ there is always something of the truth in them…

…Christianity (he said) is exactly the some thing–with the enormous difference that the poet who invented it was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history.

Do you mean, asked Lewis, that the death and resurrection of Christ is the old ‘dying god’ story all over again?

Yes, Tolkien answered, except that here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences.  The old myth has become a fact  But it still retains the character of a myth…  For, Tolkien said, if God is mythopoeic, man must become mythopathic.

…Twelve days later Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves: ‘I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ–in Christianity.  I will try to explain this another time.  My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.'”

 

–from The Inklings by Humphrey Carenter, 1979

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